Historical Background
Part 2: Psionics

During the Gene Wars, psionics were still regarded as fakiry or superstition and no serious research was ever done. Afterward, however, the prevalence of nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare agents in the environment led to a large increase in the rate of genetic mutation among all surviving species, including Terrans and genetically engineered recombinants (both war-beasts and others). The vast majority of mutations killed their hosts, either directly or by rendering their offspring unviable. But a few proved beneficial, and at least one is now known to have led to the emergence of psionic abilities.

Little or nothing might have come of it if not for the Institute of New Generation Genetics (based in Melbourne, Australia). The Institute didn't intend to encourage the spread and development of psionic abilities but ended up doing so inadvertently through Project Beach.

The project's name was inspired by the Nevil Shute Norway novel On the Beach. It's purpose (in the words of one of its principal participants, Dr. Charles Turner) was to "not go gentle into that good night but rage, rage, against the dying of the light" (quoting the original author, Dylan Thomas). Thus, the goal of the project was not to acquiesce humbly to death (as happened in On the Beach) but to exert every possible effort preventing it.

The grim fact was that the Confederation of Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, and a smattering of south Pacific islands) had survived the Gene Wars more through luck and favorable geography than anything else. During the war years multiple plagues had ravaged North and South America, Africa, Europe, and southeast Asia. Even the lest of them killed more people than the entire remaining population of Oceania. It was unlikely that a plague, or even a string of them, would kill off every last person, but they could very easily wreck what remained of civilization, plunging the world into a new dark age. Given the state of the world, with ecological devastation caused not only by the war but also by rampant industrialization beforehand, it was seen as a very real possibility that Homo Sapiens might actually become extinct. Project Beach aimed to prevent that unfortunate outcome, by whatever means necessary.

Phase One of the project involved taking a survey of surviving populations in order to determine which ones adapted best to life in the new, polluted world. Genetic samples were taken from as many survivors as could be located, the idea being to discover advantageous gene groups and mutations. (Samples from primarily from populations accessible by sea: Malaysia, Siberia, Alaska, Central and South America, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia.)

In Phase Two, samples were weighted by how well their populations seemed to be adapting; based on that information, and experience gained from decades of fighting plagues, the Institute created an "inoculation" against the most common hazards. The treatment wasn't really an inoculation but rather a mutagenic transformation, which replaced existing genes and added new ones. This fact was kept secret, because if word ever got out that the government was, essentially, transforming the entire population into war-beasts, there would be mass panic and revolution.

Phase Three involved testing and deployment of the treatment. This was handled in a very ruthlessly pragmatic fashion: Reconstruction workers were given the treatment, sent out, then studied to see how well they survived. A lot of people died- many of them horribly- without ever knowing they were subjects of a massive genetic experiment. Their suffering wasn't in vain, though; the treatment worked and successive trials lead to a number of improvements. Now, at least, the species had a fighting chance.

(Ironically, it can be argued that Project Beach accomplished exactly what it was meant to prevent: the extinction of the Terran species. Due to the genetic changes made by the treatment, in essence the original species was gradually "replaced" by a new one. The new one looked just like the old one and could interbreed with it, so no one really noticed. Only a comparison of the new genome with the old would reveal the difference. The distinction, alas, is not at all academic; a great many "Earth First" style extremist groups base their beliefs on the presumption that they are "true" or "purebred" Terrans, while all the others are "mongrels" or "genejokes." The joke's on the extremists, though; repeated genetic surveys have proven conclusively that no "true" Terrans exist any more; the new and old patterns have diffused together to an extent that there's no longer any meaningful distinction.)

Psionics comes into it because, as it turned out, a gene grouping collected from villagers in Malaysia contained a mutation that encouraged the development of psionic abilities. The genes also caused developmental side-effects in the brain and liver, but these were eliminated in the process of refining the Breach Treatment, so the "Psi Genes" piggy-backed their way into the final product, which was given to almost the entire population of Oceania, then spread by their descendants all over the world.

That this gene group could "sneak through" without its effects being noticed is the result of two factors. First, the genes in question don't actually cause psionic powers, but merely allow them to develop when combined with other genes. Second, Project Beach was undertaken in what modern eyes might see as a very hurried and slipshod fashion. A lot of genes slipped through the proverbial cracks that would have been eliminated in a study that practiced tighter controls and allowed more time to study the long-term impact. (One famous example is the tribe in India where the people sprouted hair all over their bodies, so they ended up looking like Yeti.) Project Beach's impatience can be understood, if not forgiven, in light of the fact that they didn't think they had time to be cautious and careful. A plague or other disaster could sweep down upon them at any moment; the consequences of rolling the dice and losing were seen as no worse than what would happen if they did nothing or took too long and were caught unprepared.

Another place where Psi genes slipped in unnoticed was the Chakat Genome Project. Drs. Charles and Katharine Turner had both worked on Project Beach; they incorporated knowledge and genetic material from the earlier research. (Chakats were meant to be an extension of, and improvement on, the goals of Project Beach.) The particular combination of genes selected for the Chakat Genome caused Chakats to express the first scientifically recognized psionic ability: their now well-known empathy.

It's worth noting that the ability wasn't recognized as psionic at the time. Which is perhaps fortunate; Recombinants with "mysterious" abilities- especially for which there wasn't an easily recognized defense- would have been exterminated, and the Institute wiped out along with them. Even without that the Drs. Turner knew they had a hard sell ahead of them; in order to stack the odds as much as possible in their favor they designed Chakats to be as friendly, attractive, and gentle natured as possible without compromising their basic function. The generally positive (what some might call surprisingly positive) public reaction to Chakats was attributed to their "cuteness." In retrospect, empathy probably had at least as much to do with it: Chakats wanted to be liked and did everything they could in aid of that, which surely included projecting feelings of happiness and well-being to the people around them. It undoubtedly aided the species' survival, and gave the people of Oceania a much-needed morale boost in the process. Also, the effect was mild enough that it wasn't easily recognized as psionic. The "discovery" of psionic powers didn't happen until some 30 years later, when some of the Malaysians mentioned earlier expressed more dramatic abilities. At that point the gene samples taken from them were back-tracked and identified in Project Beach and also Chakats. Tests confirmed that Chakat empathy was a real ability, and all Chakats had it to some degree or another. By then the Confederation of Oceania had become the United Nations of Terra World Government, a number of Recombinant populations (mostly war-beasts) had signed on as allies, and the Unification Wars were underway (though as yet still in a fairly small way). Not a few people were upset, feeling that Chakats had "tricked" the population into accepting them, and that the Institute of New Generation Genetics had delibarately perpetrated a fraud. On the whole, though, it wasn't nearly as great a matter as it could have been. By then Chakats and other Recombinants had become a signifigant percentage of the population and UNTWG had enjoyed some outstanding successes (mainly, bringing Canda and parts of South America on board, plus the recolonization of South Africa). For most people things were finally starting to turn around, and for good or ill they didn't want to dwell on unpleasantness.

The next major event in the proliferation of psionics began at the same time as the Chakat Genome project but didn't come to light until much, much later. Dr Curtis Bryant, another alumnus of Project Beach and a friend to Charles and Katharine Turner, had his own view of what a "helper" species would be like. He took a more conservative approach, focusing mainly on physical qualities and less on social ones. He felt that Charles and Katharine were taking a dangerous and unnecessary risk by focusing so much on the social qualities of their creation. He was sure people wouldn't accept it, and the whole thing would turn into a flaming disaster.

Despite this difference of opinion, the three remained close friends. Charles and Katharine helped Curtis as much as possible, sending him notes and samples in order to speed up his work. He was trying to do by himself what Charles and Katharine were doing together, and the Institute felt it wise to have a "backup" in case the Chakats didn't work out.

Dr. Bryant fell farther and farther behind, though. Chakats were finished first and made their public debut. Now Dr. Bryant intensely regretted not making his creatures more photogenic; not only would they be johnny-come-latelys, they'd have to compete with Chakat charisma. And then, the bottom fell out of Dr. Bryant's world. The Institute canceled his project; with Chakats a success there wasn't any need for a second species.

Exactly what happened next is largely a matter of speculation; Dr. Bryant retired from the Institute and even stopped communicating with the Turners. Charles and Katharine, for their own part, made several attempts to reach him, but overseeing the training and deployment of their Chakats took up too much of their time. It's known that Dr. Bryant had developed as intensely personal a relationship with his Skunktaurs as the Turners had with their Chakats. Seeing the Turners with their babies no doubt hurt him terribly, when he had nothing at all to show for his own efforts. He hadn't even reached the stage of producing a prototype.

It is known that, some years later, Dr. Bryant was contacted by representatives of three corporations which had won Reconstruction contracts from the Confederation of Oceania government. The firms, like others, were impressed by the Chakats but frustrated by the development schedule. In order that Chakats should be properly socialized, the Institute decided (and the Turners wholly agreed) that while Chakat embryos could be grown in artificial wombs, the babies should be raised by surrogate parents. In the interests of getting Chakats out into the field as quickly as possible some growth acceleration was done, but even then it would be around twelve years before Chakats entered the workforce in any significant numbers. Lots of firms were waiting to hire Chakats, which would drive up wages, increase costs, and reduce profitability. The Three Firms, as they would come to be known, wanted to get a jump on the competition and save money at the same time. They wanted Dr. Bryant to finish his work, which they would wholly subsidize. In return, the doctor would license the Skunktaurs to the firms for their exclusive use.

If Dr. Bryant had produced a prototype, thinks likely would have been very different. He probably would have told the firms to get stuffed, even if it meant there would only ever be one Skunktaur. With a baby of his own, Curtis might have ended his self-imposed exile and reunited with the Turners. He might have made an impassioned appeal to his old friends that his child shouldn't spend the rest of hys life being the only one of hys kind. And the Turners, moved by this plea, probably would have done whatever it took to grant it, even at the risk of their own professional standing.

But that's not how it happened. One can easily imagine that Dr. Bryant wanted his Skunktaurs to live so badly that he'd do anything, anything at all, in order to make it happen. It could explain how he overlooked the fact that the Three Firms talked as if Dr. Bryant were designing a product rather than people. file://localhost/H:/Pub-0/DAT/Reference/Other/Skunktaur/history.htm